A ground-breaking drug treatment programme led to a 34 per cent drop in criminal offending by people who took part, a study found, prompting calls for the Government to urgently extend the initiative nationwide.
Te Ara Oranga, or the Pathway to Wellbeing, is a partnership between the police and the Northland DHB which helps steer meth addicts towards treatment in the health system and employment, rather than the revolving door of criminal charges in the courtroom.
One of the key findings in the recent study of Te Ara Oranga was a return of at least $3 for every $1 invested, possibly up to $7, according to the evaluation report published on the Ministry of Health website in late December.
The Labour Party made an election promise in October 2020 to expand the treatment project from Northland to another 4000 families in the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying "the old ways have failed us over decades".
Struggling towns in those three regions are the worst affected by the country's methamphetamine crisis, where the weekly per capita consumption rate of the drug can be more than double the national average, according to Herald analysis of two years of wastewater test results.
Nearly half-way through the electoral term since Labour was re-elected with an overwhelming majority, no progress had been made on the number one law and order priority, Te Ara Oranga.
Attempts to confirm a timeframe for future plans were met largely with silence from the agencies and Cabinet Ministers involved.
"Manifesto Commitments are for a three-year term. We are still committed to the roll-out of Te Ara Oranga by the end of the term," said Police Minister Poto Williams in a statement to the Herald last year.
She did not respond to further questions last week, but a spokeswoman for Health Minister Andrew Little said there was no further update.
But a recent study of the effectiveness of Te Ara Oranga has led traditional opponents who clashed in debate over drug law reform being united in calling for the Government to make faster progress on the promised expansion.
"Te Ara Oranga is a no-brainer," said Sarah Helm, the executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
"This evaluation shows we shouldn't be holding back from sharing this programme in other regions impacted by methamphetamine. This is urgent and important."
She was referring to a 184-page report quietly published on the Ministry of Health website a few days before Christmas.
The authors, associate professor Darren Walton and Samara Martin, conducted 54 interviews with police, health and frontline workers in partner agencies, as well as gang members, prison inmates, meth cooks and users and their families.
The researchers also obtained "extraordinarily rare" access to police and health administrative data to track the progress of 1639 individual meth users who went through Te Ara Oranga services over two years.
There was a 34 per cent reduction in criminal offending, according to their findings.
Walton and Martin also conducted a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the positive results were a sufficient "return on investment" to deliver the programme.
While the cost-benefit analysis was complicated by whether someone was a casual, moderate or heavy user of methamphetamine, the calculation suggests a return of between $3 and $7 for each dollar invested into the programme.
"In a nutshell, this report concludes that Te Ara Oranga works," Professor Ian Lambie wrote in the foreword. Lambie is the chief science adviser on justice issues for the Prime Minister.
"It is my sincere hope that those who are in positions to influence change closely study this evaluation report and seriously consider its recommendations. By doing so, we could go some way to addressing the negative impact of methamphetamine in our country."
The pilot programme in Northland was established under the previous National government.
Dr Shane Reti, the party's health spokesman who also lives in Northland, said the recent evaluation was further confirmation of Te Ara Oranga's successful track record.
"It's the best meth programme in the country. It's because of the true partnership between police and health, they've both got skin in the game," said Reti.
"The real magic though, is the pou whenua. These are the people working and living in the community, with lived experience, who have now retrained in health or social work. They know how to support people going through the programme because they've walked down that path themselves."
Reti said a future National government would expand Te Ara Oranga across the country, but also increase funding so the programme could provide more intensive outpatient support.
"It's not even much money, in the scheme of things."
Alongside National and Labour, Te Ara Oranga has also been supported by the Green Party when the pilot programme received a $4m funding injection in 2019.
Such cross-party political support for drug policy is rare, said former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark in an opinion piece published in the Herald today.
"We have a programme here that can make a huge difference and is uniquely homegrown. The Government has some important choices to make about how to take it forward."
The Herald has been attempting to find out answers about the lack of progress in Te Ara Oranga since the middle of last year.
A spokesperson said the Ministry of Health was pleased with the pilot results of Te Ara Oranga and "expanding the programme is under active consideration".
"However significant funding will need to be secured for a full roll-out of the programme," said the spokesperson, who later clarified $38m was needed.
Health Minister Andrew Little, who also once held the justice portfolio, refused to release any documents under the Official Information Act, which a spokeswoman later confirmed were five internal emails sent by Ministry of Health Officials.
The office of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also declined to release any documents about Te Ara Oranga under the Official Information Act, on the grounds of protecting the confidentiality of advice and the "effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions".
The New Zealand Police and Police Minister released some documents under the Official Information Act, but the briefings were heavily redacted.
The paragraphs that were released in an unredacted form contained information already publicly available, including in stories previously published by NZME which first reported on Te Ara Oranga as part of the award-winning documentary Fighting the Demon.
The Te Ara Oranga document released to the Herald with redactions was a briefing which noted the project fitted with the new police strategy, implemented in 2019, which aims to reduce demand for drugs at the same time as investigating the criminal networks that supply them.
Referred to by police as the "Resilience to Organised Crime in Communities", the strategy was previously reported by the Herald in other documents obtained under the Official Information Act.
One of those documents was a briefing to the former Police Minister Stuart Nash, which said that organised criminal groups are feeding addiction and mental health problems through dealing drugs, particularly in regional communities.
In turn, this drives burglary and theft, because addicts often steal to fund their use, as well as violence in the form of "standovers" and "taxing", whereby criminals steal from each other by force. Increasingly, firearms are being used in drug-related conflict.
The harm being caused by the meth crisis is intertwined with family and sexual violence; child neglect; inadequate housing; poor health, education and social services; and a lack of employment, said the briefing paper. These negative socio-economic conditions make joining a gang or organised crime group more attractive to members of poorer communities.
"We can disrupt organised crime groups," the briefing said, "but if we do not address at the same time the impact of organised crime in our communities, the void will likely be filled again by more organised crime."